My Nights With Hamid

The world is hounding the Afghan president to crack down on corruption and kick out entrenched warlords. I don't think he's going to do it, and I should know: I’m the man who wrote his autobiography.


In my first one-on-one meeting in Kabul with Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan, he vacillated. He waffled. The leader of one of the toughest countries to lead in the world was being indecisive. I thought: This is not a good sign.

My acquaintance with Karzai began almost 20 years earlier, in Peshawar, Pakistan. When I first saw Peshawar in November 1986, it was like landing on another planet. Bearded men in turbans, women wearing burqas. Donkey carts, camel caravans, herds of sheep, horse-drawn tongas sharing the road with giant smoke-belching Bedford "jingle trucks," gaily painted, noisy little three-wheeled taxis, and hordes of humanity, much of it armed. Narrow, crooked cobbled streets lined with tiny mud-walled shops selling carpets and lapis jewelry. Roaring engines, honking horns, bleating sheep — and occasional gunfire or explosions — provided the sound track. I felt I’d walked into the Star Wars bar on Tatooine.

I had gone to Peshawar to set up a training center for Afghan journalists, and to recruit trainees I visited the headquarters of all seven of the major Afghan resistance groups, from the Hezb-i-Islami faction headed by the fire-breathing, acid-throwing Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, to the moderate Afghan National Liberation Front led by the scholarly professor Sibghatullah Mujaddidi. It was at the latter’s offices where I encountered Karzai, the ANLF spokesman. I remember the sense of relief, after dealing with some of the less-friendly factions, to be ushered into a clean, comfortable reception room and be greeted by a fit, smiling young man with a trim beard and an already-balding pate. Although he wore the traditional shalwar kameez and sandals, his outfits always seemed tailored, pressed, and spotless. Among the foreign journalists who drank at the American Club in Peshawar’s University Town, Hamid Karzai was the unanimous choice as Best-Dressed Afghan.

The India-educated Karzai, fluent in English, enjoyed mingling with the Western crowd. He would turn up at parties hosted by the director of the American Center or the U.S. consul, drinking tea or soda and chatting easily with wine-swilling guests. He also liked to slip into Peshawar’s only luxury hotel, the Intercontinental, for a dip in the swimming pool. I once told a gathering of South Asia analysts that while they may have thought of themselves as Afghan "experts," I was the only person in the room who had seen Hamid Karzai in a Speedo.

After leaving Peshawar at the end of August 1988, I did not see Karzai again for 16 years, until in the aftermath of 9/11 when America jumped into Afghanistan with both boots, driving out the Taliban and their Arab "guest," Osama bin Laden, and Hamid Karzai was named head of the new interim government in Kabul.

In 2004, my long-held desire to visit Afghanistan was made possible by an opportunity to serve for four months as an advisor and journalism trainer in Karzai’s press office, and I renewed my old acquaintance with the man who was now the leader of the nation. The following spring I invited him to be the 2005 commencement speaker at Boston University, where I teach, and to my great joy he accepted. By then he had been elected to a five-year term in Afghanistan’s first ever national election. Before the ceremony, I asked the president if he wished to go on stage in his signature long green chappan and karakul cap, but no, he wanted academic regalia. I helped Karzai into the scholar’s black robe, hood and tasseled cap, and under threatening mid-May Boston skies, the president of Afghanistan was greeted as a rock star by 20,000 graduates and guests. While he was in Boston, I slipped him a brief proposal that we do a book, an autobiographical history that I would ghost-write. A month later his chief of staff called from Kabul and said, "The president wants to do the book. What do we do now?"

I went back to Kabul and spent the next three months meeting with Karzai in the evenings after his official days ended, listening to him tell the story of his life and talk about being the leader of his war-ravaged country.

But when I arrived at the palace for our first meeting, the chief of staff took me aside and said, "He has changed his mind. He doesn’t think he should do the book." I was panicky. I had come all this way, and taken months off without pay, for nothing? I was shown into his office still wondering what the hell I would say to turn him around. Two of his advisors were with him.

"They don’t think I should do this book," Karzai said. "Why should I?"

"Mr. President," I began. "You are reluctant to produce a book as a sitting president. Well, then, let’s not think of it as a book. Let’s think of it as a sort of long op-ed piece in which a president makes an impassioned plea to the world to not abandon his country again. Think of it as giving a voice to your people." He pondered this. He looked at the advisers. They shrugged and nodded. I had turned them.

"All right," said Karzai. "Let’s do it."

But he would change his mind at least twice more during our sessions, and I would go into my song-and-dance and change it back again.

Over the next three months, I lived in a little guest house and waited for my cellphone to ring and an Afghan voice to tell me, "The president wishes to see you tonight." An old black Soviet Lada would appear in the muddy lane at around 7, and I would be driven to the Arg Palace, the sprawling 19th-century compound where Karzai lives and works.

Sometimes the president and I would meet alone, either in his formal office or in a small study behind it where we would watch the television news, munch on raisins and pistachios, drink coffee (he preferred it to tea) and chit-chat. He was always a booster. "Try these almonds," he would command. "Afghan. The best!" Then I would turn on my recorder and he would talk about his life and his people, giving me the material for the book. Some nights he was relaxed and expansive. Other nights he seemed preoccupied, and he had much to worry about in his country. With the recorder on, he was always careful with his words. He did not want anything to get into print that he had not carefully considered, and if I tried to add contextual material in the drafts I showed him he would bark, "I didn’t say that! Take it out." But throughout, he came across as a sort of romantic Afghan nationalist, living on visions of the peaceful Afghanistan of his boyhood and hoping to somehow bring about a return to those days.

 Occasionally we would meet at his residence, and after our session I would be invited to dine with the president at a long table that seated at least 20. Magically, at dinner time a dozen or more men — it was always men only — would appear for supper with Karzai. I sat at Karzai’s right, and he would spoon food onto my plate. "Try this! A great Afghan dish!" We drank pomegranate juice, which he touted for its antioxidant properties. He was an autocrat of the dinner table. All eyes looked to him to lead the conversation, which was always in Pashto or Dari, neither of which I understood. No one spoke to me except Karzai.

One night I arrived at the residence to find him walking brisk laps around his circular driveway, and he commanded me to join him.

In the course of our meetings, which were often interrupted by unscheduled visits from aides and cabinet ministers and by many phone calls, I developed a picture of Karzai the president, trying to reconcile it with my memory of the genial spokesman I had met in Peshawar. It became clear that President Karzai still had a lot in common with that young man — an eagerness to please, a dislike of conflict, a willingness to compromise, a need to find consensus.  In this spirit he allowed mujahideen warlords who had committed serious war crimes to join the government, while most rank-and-file Afghans would have preferred to see them locked away in Pol-i-charki prison. And while no one has yet accused him of being personally corrupt, he has tolerated corruption all around him, and he tacitly allowed his supporters to commit massive vote fraud in the August election.

Months after I left Kabul, and the book was ready for printing, Karzai waffled again and refused to allow publication. So I adapted the material I had gathered for a new book about the Afghan leader and his troubled country.

At the start of his second term, Karzai is under immense pressure from the new governments in Washington and London to grasp the nettle and clean house. But since the day in December 2001 when he was named head of the new post-Taliban government and had the support of the vast majority of the Afghan people, he has shied away from the hard decisions that might have set Afghanistan on a more promising course. I’m not sure if he has it in him to do it now.

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